The Eastern Cape town of Bedford is famous for its annual Garden Festival, but now has another floral attraction – a rosarium. Here the heritage and old roses, ancestors of our modern cultivars, have been preserved and are thriving in an arboretum of tall trees.

Did you know?

Heritage roses predate 1920. ‘Old roses’ is a wider terminology – used for varieties that have heritage parentage or characteristics.

South Africa’s old roses have particularly interesting stories to tell. Cape Town-based horticulturist Gwen Fagan devoted an entire book to them.

Called Roses at the Cape of Good Hope, the book takes you from the first moment Jan van Riebeeck plucked a bloom in the Cape in 1657 (a scant five years after Europeans first settled here) to 1910, when hybridised tea roses first made an appearance, ousting their older ancestors.

It was the 1820 British Settlers who brought over much of the original rose rootstock to the Eastern Cape, and planted them in gardens around Bedford, Somerset East, Graaff-Reinet and Hogsback.

When rose doyenne Fagan started hunting for older rose plants, she found that farms and old graveyards in the Eastern Cape were true treasure troves. Here she found 60% of the country’s old rose mother stock, which she was able to propagate.

Because there were no nurseries here, there was no incentive to hack out the old and plant the new. Also, the climate is harsh, and what grows well is generally left alone to carry on, scrambling over fences, up trees and over houses. Perfumed flowers like the old roses made them even more popular.

Her stories inspired some of the South African Heritage Rose Society members. But where to house Fagan's carefully collected beauties? Clearly a garden of preservation was needed where the public could enjoy them, be educated about how to grow them, and where budwood could be grown.

Eventually, Bedford was chosen as the old rose sanctuary. It seemed particularly appropriate since the town is already well known for its annual Garden Festival in October.

In October 2011, the first roses were planted at Bedford’s Camelot Arboretum. Today they are safe and thriving in the town’s good deep soils. They grow in happy companionship with indigenous pelargoniums, sutera and agapanthus, clambering up shrubs and shady trees, filling the garden with a heavenly fragrance.

Here you will find roses hardly ever seen in modern gardens. They have quaint names like Mermaid, General Gallieni, Pompon la Bourgogne, Maiden’s Blush and Fanny la France. Eventually this sanctuary will protect more than 2 000 roses.

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